written by Scott M. Gimple | directed by Gregory Nicotero
The first two seasons of The Walking Dead were grossly overrated by its millions of viewers, but I found the third a significant improvement. The only thing that let it down was how AMC, fully aware they have a mega-hit on their hands, greedily increased the season order to 16 episodes and divided them with a frustrating four-month hiatus. It meant there wasn't enough material to fill the time; so almost everything in season 3's latter-half was a wheel-spinning bore ahead of a limp finale (lacking the resolution you expected considering the extra time investment).
After season 3's disappointing finale, where Rick's (Andrew Lincoln) group liberated the townsfolk of Woodbury from their tyrannical leader 'The Governor' (David Morrissey), the population has swelled at the maximum-security prison. It makes little sense why they avoided staying in the considerably more picturesque Woodbury, which presents the sensation of living in a normal pre-zombie community, but let's hand-wave that issue away like the writers have. The boon this tweak gives the show is obvious within minutes: there are lots of new faces and fresh dynamics to explore. Now we have cute Karen (Melissa Ponzo), whom Tyreese (Chad L. Coleman) has a fondness for; young lovers Zach (Kyle Gallner) and Beth (Emily Kinnery); ex-army medic, aspiring zombie-slayer, and alcoholic Bob Stookey (Lawrence Gilliard Jr); and a group of kids for Rick's son Carl (Chandler Riggs) to befriend, including the sickly Patrick (Vincent Martella).
It's not that the newcomers are better written, but it helps that TWD is adding new blood after three long seasons. It also helps give the veterans new personalities to bounce off, and this episode in general seemed to focus a lot more on the daily chit-chat and banter you'd expect to see from a close-knit group. It feels slightly more relaxed in and around the prison. Sword-wielding Michonne (Danai Gurira) even cracks a smile, which I'm sure is a sign of a second zombie apocalypse.
Rick also had a nice little sub-plot, as he met Clara (Kerry Condon) in the woods (an Irish woman so dirty and wretched-looking he mistook her for a zombie at first). She led him back to her camp to meet her husband Eddie, with Rick believing he may be about to recruit two new people to his clique, only to realise Clara's deranged and had intended to feed him her zombie-hubby (who was creepily never seen, hidden under a moaning head-sized sackcloth). It wasn't anything we haven't see before, really—reminding me of The Governor's own desire to believe his zombie-daughter was still the little girl he knew before she was bitten—but it was nevertheless a fun diversion.
Overall, while this wasn't the most dramatic and action-packed premiere The Walking Dead's ever put together, I found myself responding very favourably to it. The focus on character was a lot sharper, first impressions of all the newbies was positive, there wasn't a sub-plot that actively bored me, and the final twist with young Patrick turning into a zombie (yes, he was THAT kind of sick) was pretty good.
- This premiere lured 16.1 million viewers, which is quite simply astonishing for a cable channel. It's not only TWD's highest-rated episode yet, but also basic cable's highest-rated episode ever. To put things in perspective: TWD's record-breaking pilot managed what now seems like a paltry 5.35m, and season 3's premiere drew 10.87 pairs of eyeballs. The highest-rated episode before this was season 3's finale (12.42m), so it's added 4m viewers since then. I have no words. America loves zombies. It may also be helping that the show has fewer episodes than the traditional network standard of 24, and spreads them out over the whole year. This allows time for people to catchup mid-season, which is part of the reason many commentators think Breaking Bad also saw its ratings explode over the years. Good word of mouth and the chance to catch up with what you've missed is a winning recipe.
- Showrunners don't tend to last long before they "move on" from TWD, or AMC fire them despite the success they're clearly responsible for, so Scott M. Gimple has succeeded Glen Mazzara, who himself took over from Frank Darabont mid-season 2. Gimple has promised an increase in zombies, which is certainly what we got here.